Saturday, June 25, 2011

southernish cornbread panzanella

salad for dinner is the epitome of summer. after a couple of years away from texas, a summer salad dinner still feels right. even in portland's not-deadly-hot clime, there's something about a full-meal salad that woos me every summer.

a perfect salad-meal has a few requirements: leaves/vegetables, protein, carbohydrates, good dressing. if you are missing one of these four cornerstones, your salad will be a sad disappointment and you will wish you had just gone out for dinner.

this salad is a southern-style panzanella-esque meal that fulfills the 4 requirements perfectly - lettuce (here, romaine and a butter lettuce/radicchio mix, but you can use whatever hearty greens you have), cucumber, tomatoes, scallions, sweet onion, bacon, blue cheese (here, gorgonzola), cornbread, and a ranch-style buttermilk dressing with lots of fresh herbs. the best thing is that ingredients can be changed out with relative impunity as long as you have those four bases.

i would actually recommend that you purchase some cornbread for this, if you can find any worth your time. i made some in the toaster oven so as not to heat up the house too much, but really, who wants to bother with that? if you buy some cornbread that some other sucker made for you, you are ahead of the game. otherwise, use whatever you like (i like homesicktexan's, since she knows that in the south cornbread is not sweetened).

then you kind of treat the cornbread as if you are making croutons - i hacked it up into smallish pieces (actually, it's nice to have some craggy bits involved - it gives a better texture - you don't want it all to be perfect little squares) and dried it out in the toaster oven (although this could also be done in an oven - maybe 300-350, turn them occasionally for 20 minutes or so until they are dry and deliciously crustish).

this dressing is something like ranch. it has buttermilk (about a cup) and mayonnaise (about 1/3 cup, but you can use more or less to your taste and liking of thick dressing) and a little cider vinegar (about a teaspoon) and a clove of garlic, the zest from half a lemon, and a whole lot of herbs.

here in portland, one can procure fresh herbs in bulk, so it's easy to get a bunch of different things for a dressing like this. if you are in a place that makes you buy all of your herbs in little $3.99 thingies, though, for god's sake don't use this many herbs. of course, if you are totally on the ball and growing these little beauties in your backyard or patio, by all means use whatever you have on hand. in the photo above, italian parsley is in the top right corner, then going clockwise there is cilantro, garlic, lemon zest, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, thyme, and some chives in the center.

i did the garlic and the lemon zest on the microplane (though otherwise you could just chop both really fine) and mixed those with the buttermilk, mayo, and vinegar and a good amount of salt and pepper. don't be shy about these. then i chopped all of the herbs up together (after taking of the woody stems of those that needed it, like rosemary, oregano, and thyme) and threw them in and let it all get cozy for awhile. it's good if you can make the dressing at least a few hours before you have the salad, just so the flavors meld. but it will still be good, even if you can't. i like making dressings in a jar so you can just shake it all together, but you should feel free to do whatever you want. i am not the boss of you.

then it's simply a matter of cooking the bacon (i used our neighborhood do-goodery's free-range turkey bacon, although probably the real stuff would be excellent as well), slicing some vegetables, and putting it all together. oh, and making, if you like, some onions that i am calling "dry-pickled" (that's not really a thing, and pickling is not exactly what you are doing, but whatever).

the onion i used was some kind of small, sweet one. if you're in the northwest, something like walla walla is both tasty and fun to say. if you're in texas, a 1015 will definitely work. if you are elsewhere, as so many are, use your best judgment. so i had half an onion and sliced it thinly. then i massaged it with about a teaspoon of kosher salt and a teaspoon of sugar and let it sit for an hour or so. this is kind of like what happens when you make the pickles that go on banh mi - it softens the onion and mellows its flavor and makes it super good.

so. salad greens and vegetables washed and prepped, cornbread croutons dried and ready, bacons crisped and tasty - just plonk it all together (or, if you want it to be fancy, dress the greens lightly, then toss the cornbread with a little dressing, then put it nicely on a plate, then add the other vegetables and a little more dressing, then bacon and blue cheese as a crowning glory). this is a satisfying and delicious way to have dinner without significantly heating up your kitchen. you can even toast the croutons the night before and have them ready when you want dinner.

other options with this salad would be smoked salmon instead of bacon, the addition of some rotisserie chicken instead of blue cheese, or a poached egg instead of something. as long as you remember to have the 4 main ingredient categories, you can't go too far wrong.

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